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8 February

Why don’t the Irish qualify for reparations?

The BBC journalist Laura Trevelyan is confused about social justice.

By Charlie Peters

The BBC reporter Laura Trevelyan and her family have donated £100,000 to fund economic development in Grenada, where their ancestors owned 1,000 slaves and six sugar plantations. She discussed the decision and “her family’s journey” with a BBC colleague, Azadeh Moshiri, herself a billionaire heiress.

Trevelyan justified her six-figure payment in the language that is customarily used in debates about race. “If anyone had ‘white privilege’, it was surely me, a descendant of Caribbean slave owners,” she has said. Trevelyan detailed the terrible effects of her family’s legacy, arguing to Moshiri that “obesity… is linked to slavery”.

Trevelyan’s acceptance of guilt has drawn attention to another blight in her family history – the links between her four-times great-grandfather Charles and the Irish Potato Famine. Charles Trevelyan was the English official in charge of famine relief when millions died during the 1840s and 1850s; Irish rugby fans celebrating their win over Wales last weekend will have sung The Fields of Athenry, a tune that lauds a prisoner who “stole Trevelyan’s corn”.

Trevelyan’s sense of privilege seems to disappear somewhere before the shores of Ireland. Why does Trevelyan choose to “set an example” in Grenada and not in Ireland? 

James Baldwin might have given us a two-word answer: white guilt. Baldwin, writing in the 1960s, deployed the phrase as an accusation. “No curtain under heaven is heavier than that curtain of guilt and lies behind which white Americans hide.” Today, a certain kind of white liberal American, of which Trevelyan can be counted as one, no longer hides under a curtain. But the guilt is still there, and it still motivates their behaviour in strange ways.

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After the worldwide racial reckoning sparked by the murder of George Floyd in the US by police in May 2020, legions of liberals desperate to atone for the original sin of whiteness looked for opportunities to repent. Supply soon matched the demand. There are many ways for liberals to redress their sins. The American activist Saira Rao runs a popular “Race to Dinner” business, where liberal white women paid thousands of dollars to be lectured about… how racist they are. Paying reparations is essentially a repeat of the same experience.

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Race dinners and reparations seem like questionable exercises. Applying modern ethics to Victorian grandees achieves little other than reaffirming the sense of superiority felt by those moderns delivering their judgements. The dead cannot defend themselves against the outrage du jour.

Trevelyan wants to set an example for Britain. She wants the shame she experiences to be felt collectively. She has urged the rest of us to exorcise “slavery’s legacy” and call for global “justice” reparations.

It’s not necessary. The quiet truth is that Britain makes an effort to do real justice to those who are alive – and suffering – today. Extra government funding for the Global Fund last November means that British taxpayers will likely save more than a million lives from tuberculosis, HIV/Aids and malaria. Last month, the government again stepped in to support Pakistan, committing £36m to help rebuild flood defences, send 20,000 back to school, and provide health care to another 170,000.

That story hasn’t received anywhere near as much attention as Trevelyan’s has this week, which tells you most of what you need to know about contemporary debates about race and social justice.

[See also: The “woke” may be dogmatic, but social progress owes a lot to religious fervour]

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